Help Wanted: Stories from Distribution in West Africa

By Emily Tsambiras DLA Distribution Public Affairs

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An employee with the federal government for 32 years, travel was very familiar to Wayne Myers. Supporting the customer on site in West Africa, however, was new to him. “I have served as a lead on a variety of projects doing data collection at many of our distribution sites around the globe, so I have participated in a lot of travel. Liberia was a lot further forward; from data gathering and plan development to the operational end in an austere environment.”

Myers is not a member of the Expeditionary Team; rather, he was asked to make the trip to share his diverse knowledge of distribution and to serve as deputy to the officer-in-charge. “The scope and volume of the mission was much bigger than anticipated. The team was short staffed and I was excited to take advantage of a unique opportunity to be of assistance to my country and to do something that was just the right thing to do.”

Despite his excitement, Myers was also a bit hesitant to leave home. “When I was initially asked to go, I was told I’d be in Africa probably seven days or less, but definitely no more than fourteen. I was going to scout out potential warehouse locations but then another team member successfully completed that mission, so my trip was turned off.”

When Myers was once again asked to make the trip, this time to serve as deputy, the timeframe had changed. “Leadership came back and said I needed to go for up to six months. I had to leave one week later. My wife was left to manage the household, which included our two 21-month old granddaughters living with us, and the facts about Ebola were still unclear, so I was leaving my wife with a lot to handle.”

Once on the ground in Liberia, the first thing Myers says he noticed was that the conditions were challenging and personnel were spread thin between the APOD, port and container yard. The entire country was suffering from a lack of infrastructure; the temperature was in the nineties; there was heavy humidity; and it rained regularly and heavily even into what was referred to as the “dry season.” A large, fenced-in area had been turned into a container yard and heavy container-handling equipment was sinking into the mud. There were no spare parts for equipment repair or maintenance.

“Our guys had to get very creative to work with what they had. The one thing that really blew me away was how they all stepped up. It was an impressive thing to see. These guys were in an uncomfortable situation, thrust into roles they didn’t normally fill, working a mission with tight deadlines, with literal life or death consequences, and they all stepped up.”

He says the 18-person team was handling a “mind-boggling mission;” one that greatly outweighed the manpower and resources available. “Major Simpson [the officer-in-charge] was the right man, in the right place, at the right time. The skills, experience and personality he brought to the table enabled the team to accomplish what they did and it was impressive to see how hard they worked in poor conditions and met the deadlines regardless of the difficulties. Depending upon the site, they were working in some combination of dirt/dust covered floors, poor lighting, no ventilation, in a mud pit with continuous rain, over dirt roads in high temperatures and humidity. I saw guys stepping into leadership roles that had never been tasked to lead. Everyone met the challenge. They knew the requirements did not go away just because it was raining and because things got tough.”

According to Myers, the spirit of the local citizens was also remarkable. “It really struck me how, in my multiple conversations with locals, they said they were really without hope prior to the U.S.’s arrival. They felt the rest of the world had turned its back on them and just left them to die. Then America showed up and they knew something would happen. It really made me proud to be an American.”

He says that life in Liberia was similar to the U.S. in some ways. “Most of the people spoke English and there was cable with American movies- although they were ten years old. They had a good cellular service that we used to stay in communication with our sites, and there were some good restaurants. The economy ran on U.S. currency, but it was a cash economy- no debit or credit cards were used. The big difference, obviously, was the wealth disparity. Locals lived on $1.25 per day. The average person was working meal to meal.”

Another difference was the rampant disease. Aside from Ebola, Yellow Fever, AIDS, and Malaria were real threats if proper care was not taken to avoid the illnesses, says Myers. He says that threat weighed heavily on his wife at home, even though he wasn’t aware until he had returned home. “She was nervous because I was working around Liberians. Even though I said it was fine, she was seeing the news. She knew people were dying and was scared I could catch Ebola or something else and bring it home.”

After missing Thanksgiving and Christmas with family, as well as his birthday and his wife’s birthday, Myers says he was ready to head home in early January. “When it was time to go, we were ready. We had worked a lot of hours every day, for months. Our part was done; the ETUs were built.”

Following his departure from Liberia, Myers headed into quarantine and reflected on his time spent in the country. “I was excited to come home to my family; happy that I could alleviate some of the fear by participating in the quarantine; and, overall, just really proud of the work that our team did. If DLA hadn’t been there, this [outbreak] might still be going on. It was truly great to be part of this mission.”

This story is part of a continuing series profiling Defense Logistics Agency Distribution employees who deployed to Liberia to establish distribution operations with the goal of assisting in the receipt and delivery of items supporting the standup of Ebola Treatment Units.